BOOK CLUB: What are the major themes, motifs and symbols in TTW?


Now that we've all finished the book (hopefully!), we can get started with our second set of discussion questions! Again, feel free to add additional questions so we can all keep the rhythm going.

So as I was reading the book, I've noticed numerous reoccurring themes, motifs and symbols in the book. One of more important ones is DEATH. Niffenegger keeps reminding readers that death in inevitable. We can't escape it nor avoid it even if we have the ability to go back in our past. No matter how many times Henry keeps going back to his mother's accident, he knows he cannot change the result. So if he were to somehow stop the accident, it wouldn't change the outcome because nature would somehow kill his mother in another way. We also see this when Ingrid kills herself (page 477). When Ingrid brings out the gun, he tells her that she won't kill herself (a lie, but somehow thinks it might change the future), she kills herself anyway. We, of course, see this when Henry dies as well and there's nothing he could do about it..

Ultimately what the author is trying to say is that we can't change our past or future and the best way she illustrated this was by death..

Do you agree with this? What other major themes, motifs and symbols are used in the book?
May 31, 2009 @ 11:17 am

12 Replies


Great book

I loved this book, glad I finally read it. I should say one of the best books I've read all year.

For sure death, fate and the idea that certain events are fixed in time were major themes. We cannot change the lives of others once events are set in motion. It took henry a long time to come to terms with all this. And for him, being a time traveler, it took a lot longer than most people. The finality and inevitability of death is throughout the book, but I like the fact that even after Henry is dead, he can still time travel, because time is not linear, our past and future are happening at the same time as our present. It is a comfort to his daughter that either of them can travel and see each other. it was heart breaking for me to watch Clare not be apart of his life after he is dead.

Sickness was also a theme, I felt. Many people were ill - his father was an alcoholic, his ex girlfriend had emotional and suicidal issues, Mrs. Kim's daughter, Mrs. Abshire, his friend with AIDS (is it Max? Already returned the book...), and of course henry, who believes he is sick and wants to put an end to it.

of course time is a theme. Despite having more time than others, or rather the ability to experience certain moments in time more than once, Henry feels he is running out of time (even when going back in time). I think the author is trying to say that when you know what is going to happen in the future and are powerless to change it, it seems to happen much too fast. And of course Clare, in the end, has too much time, as she waits for it to pass.

Childhood/childbirth is another theme. The geneticist's misery over his son when he is born, his happiness when his daughter is born, Mrs. Kim losing her child, Henry and Clare having trouble conceiving, Mrs. Abshire and her son's girlfriend marrying because of a pregnancy. A large part of the book takes place in Clare's childhood, and Henry is always traveling back to his own. And perhaps the loss of innocence, Henry learns to steal and pick locks at a young age, and young Clare spends time with a naked man of various ages (yes, somewhat Humbert Humbert, if you ask me).

And finally, silence and secrecy. Everyone keeps secrets, even Alba, to shelter those around them. Clare, Henry and Alba keep secrets from a very young age.

I loved this book. I hope they do it justice in the movie.
May 31, 2009 @ 07:05 pm


I agree with all of the motifs and symbols that nessie mentioned. Time, death and the loss of innocence are certainly major themes in my mind.

I also think birds are a theme, but I am not quite sure how. Clare always loves birds, even as a child. Her art revolves around birds. She dreams of birds. And in the end, she makes Henry wings. I am wondering what any of you make of this theme? I don't think I fully understand it, and maybe someone else can come up with a better explanation, but the only reason I can think of birds being a motif is that they represent freedom. None of the characters in the book have very much freedom. Henry and Clare are prisioners of their own destiny. Henry is unable to change his past, his future, or the fact that he can time travel at all. Clare is unable to make Henry stay with her forever. Even Henry's father is trapped in a way by the tremedous loss of his wife, as is Kimy by the loss of her husband and child.

Perhaps birds have something to do with this lack of freedom?
Jun 01, 2009 @ 09:48 pm

response to birds

I think I see what you're saying, curlysue. I seem to recall a scene where Clare is making some sort of cage and then she gets upset and ruins the piece? I think it represents her frustration that even though a bird is meant to roam free, it is caged by its circumstance.

Henry's time traveling to an outsider would seem extremely freeing - one of a kind experiences; seeing the future and the past; generally free from social conventions (though not by choice) such as pursuing a career, abiding by the law (not only is he forced to steal to survive but he cannot be held by a jail as he will simply disappear again), etc; BUT this what frees him is also his confinement and personal hell.

This is what I love about the book - the discussion of opposites. Fate vs. choice. Past vs. Present. Free vs. trapped. Destined to be together and yet apart.

The wings represent her wish to set Henry free, but at the same time would that redefine their relationship? If he didn't time travel, their meeting in the library (his first, her zillionth) would possibly have been without consequence. Had she not recognized him and asked him to dinner - and informed him of his destiny - he would have continued to attempt a reconciliation with Ingrid and he & Clare would almost certainly never have come together.

She wants to release him, but if she did? Is that an option for her, when her entire life from 6 yrs onward revolved around him and his travel?
Jun 02, 2009 @ 09:32 am


Great thoughts on birds! Henry too, seems very taken with butterflies, and the nature museum. And most of his and young Clare's meetings are outside, in nature. I agree I think they both feel trapped by Henry's ability, especially when Henry says he is terrified of the cage at the library, he won't go near it. And exactly what he does fear happens, he is trapped in it without clothes and his secret is revealed. Clare's grandmother wants to hear about the birds, at least Clare tells her what she sees, blindness being some sort of cage itself?

The only one who doesn't seem affected by all this is Alba. Time traveling does not seem to curb her freedom at all, she seems to enjoy it.

Clare makes the wings because Henry can't walk anymore. I don't know if subconsciously she is trying to come to terms with his upcoming death, as though some angel of death will appear.

Maybe it is a play on words, how time flies?
Jun 02, 2009 @ 10:27 am

Time - You can't change your life even if know you what will happen in the future

I love love LOVE this book. Read it so many times!!! I'm a total sucker for a sad love story.

Despite of their beautiful love relationship that everyone would love to have, I think Henry and Clare had a very difficult life. Henry suffers because he sees the past, present and future but he can't change all the bad things that happens/happened. It seems as though he's living his life like he's watching himself in a movie. As for Clare, he sees Henry at various age and she can tell he's sufferings, but she can't help. Perhaps time traveling is giving them more time together than normal people get with their loved ones, but at the same time, it seems like they are given too much time.

People deal with life events as they come and people learn to cope. But when the events sort of randomly appear in your life, with no warning, and this has been happening since you are a young child lasting until the day you die, it is very difficult on all people involved. You could be celebrating the miracle of birth one day and dealing with the pain of death the next. The worse thing is that there is nothing you can do about it. Even if you know you are going to die the next day, all you can do is sit and wait for the inevitable.
Jun 02, 2009 @ 11:06 am

what about love?

I also love this book. There are two themes that stood out for me that haven't yet been mentioned.
First I think any book written in this style (a little similar to Jodi Picolt with different chapters written from different characters perspective) emphasize to me the theme of perspective/individual interpretation. I find it refreshing and so interesting in any book when the author delves into each person's experience. For example, although obviously the theme of time-travel has been explored in several mainstream movies/books, Henry's true life experience, and his desire for normalcy really explored how time travel would negatively impact on someone's life.
I also think an overarching theme was love and fate. Clare really had to give up a lot to have Henry as her life partner. Although their love was so strong, both of them had to spend so much of the book apart, longing for one another and for "normal" time together... but I still felt like it couldn't be any other way because of their true love for each other....
the whole situation was sadly romantic...

Jun 02, 2009 @ 11:09 am


Torgrl, you beat me to it by mere minutes! This is the second time I've read this book and it's the love Henry and Clare have for each other that stands out for me. They meet in real time in October of 1991 and Henry asks Clare to marry him on her birthday in May of 1992. At this point Clare has loved Henry for many years, but Henry has known Clare for less than a year. They have a beautiful relationship and love each other deeply.

This is a beautiful, romantic but tragic love story.

I hope I find my Henry!
Jun 02, 2009 @ 11:44 am

You guys are brilliant!

Ok so whenever he time travels, he leaves behind everything from the past.. including the clothes on his back.

Does this mean something? Not necessarily the nakedness, but that he can't bring anything with him anywhere.. I can't seem to figure out the meaning of this, but I'm sure the author thought about this...
Jun 03, 2009 @ 09:03 pm


sort of like how when we (in real life) die, we leave behind everything.... even the clothes on our back. him switching between realities is how i think of life / death. in my view, the life in this world, and the hereafter, coexist on some level, and when we close our eyes to this world, we open it to the next. and just like how he couldn't even take his clothes with him, neither can we. some parts of this book reminded me eerily of my views of life, death, afterlife, etc.... to me, this book is very big on symbolism, and perhaps it is just me, but these instances really makes me think perhaps the author was thinking spiritually when writing and was using symbolism to reflect that...

prespection is everything, and works in funny ways for everyone :) I loved the book, it was my first time reading it so i'm left a bit disoriented... i can't wait to re-read it and get a better prespective :)
Jun 04, 2009 @ 02:40 am


Becky, I definitely think this book gets better with a re-read. While I loved it the first time I read it (few months ago), I find myself looking for the clues and nuances I missed before as I'm reading it now. So many "ohhhhhh!" moments...

And about the nakedness and what others responded, I wonder if every jump is like a death? For one, because it's a near-death experience most of the time (ie. when he jumps to somewhere cold, dangerous, or humiliating) and two, because the uncertainty he faces must be vastly greater than any one else feels going through life. What if he timetravels to the middle of a busy freeway or onto a doomed airplane? While none of us can know the hour of our death, Henry must be so much more tortured because his life is inherently unpredictable.

Even though he "knows" he'll live to his 40s (because Clare saw him as a 40 yr old), he struggles with this idea that every action is unchangeable. I'm thinking of the scene where they try to change the date on a picture, but Clare, in her nervousness, switches it back to preserve (what?) the space-time continuum / avoid a paradox. I think he worries that maybe, just maybe the future will not play out completely as "foreseen".
Jun 04, 2009 @ 06:29 am

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